Gates’ governance arrangements are not the point

Lisa Jordan

Philanthropy as a field is challenged by accountability. The Gates Foundation being the largest will both bear the brunt of that challenge and shape the solution that most foundations will ultimately adopt. While many eyes are on Gates, it has a real opportunity to improve the accountability of philanthropy – but not through changes in its governance structure, one of the approaches suggested in Alliance.

Private foundations and private companies are exactly that – private. Over the past three decades public governance structures nationally and globally have privileged private gain over public good. If we are uncomfortable with the scale of private companies or philanthropies that spin off from an enormous profit base, we should all be funding more advocacy to rebalance the public and private interests in our societies, not attacking the governance arrangements of a private institution. The Gates Foundation operates with exactly the same principles as most family foundations which are not challenged for their governance structure. If Gates is to be targeted for its governance structure, so should all family foundations.

The Gates Foundation is not large enough on its own to have a monopoly buyer position on research or media. Rupert Murdoch has controlling interests across television and print media in much of the world, but Gates has not been a regular feature in any of the mediums he controls.

Like most civic organizations, the Gates Foundation has a lot of influence but no hard power. It is subject to the laws of the US. It can be challenged at any given time by big pharmaceutical companies in the health field or Christian conservatives objecting to changes in education. One of the other billionaires that Gates himself has stimulated to become a philanthropist may make it his or her business to launch a competing fund and thus shift global attention away from Gates’ priorities.

One change that Gates could make that would further accountability in the philanthropic field is to publish its failures. Philanthropy should be about taking risks and Gates has taken plenty. It is vital to have information in the public domain about why some approaches to social needs work and others don’t. When we do not publish our failures in gory detail we leave room for others to commit the same mistakes, often with public money. We should be singing our failures from the mountain tops as warnings to others. If Gates were to publish the trajectory it followed on small schools, for example, it would perhaps be able to convince others that this is not the right approach – and it would not be seen as quite so cavalier in its choice of silver bullets.

A second major change that would increase accountability would be to publish all knowledge generated through and by its programmes without copyright and for public use. Large foundations sit on tons of grey literature that helps programme officers discern patterns in complex social fields; helps executives and boards make decisions on which field to operate in and which fields to leave; and helps evaluate wider societal trends. Most of that information never makes its way into the public domain. Making it available would again increase the foundation’s accountability on the issue that matters most: how it makes decisions on what to fund.

When billionaires make it their business to do the right thing they generally have a free hand. If we don’t like the results it is of little consequence to complain about the individual or his or her foundation. The bigger story lies in the balance between public and private good, why size matters, and to whom we as a sector are accountable.

Lisa Jordan
Executive director, Bernard van Leer Foundation, Netherlands


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